A Greener Gleaners: Old Warehouse to Get a Sustainable Makeover

Earlier this month, The Kresge Foundation approved a $60,000 planning grant to Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan to create a master plan for green renovations to its 100-year-old warehouse in Detroit.

The "Greening of Gleaners" plan will outline how to improve building efficiency, employ renewable resources, and serve as a model in transforming its Near East Side neighborhood into a cleaner, more viable place to work and live.

More than that, the grant award is symbolic of an energy generated when public and private companies; for-profit and nonprofit organizations; and a hodgepodge of philanthropists, architects and social workers join together to begin solving problems.

I had the good fortune of working with Gleaners and the Albert Kahn Family of Companies last fall as we began envisioning a greener Gleaners – one that uses less energy and makes less of an impact on the environment. For months, Kahn’s architects and engineers and Gleaners’ leaders met to discuss possible approaches to turning an enormous warehouse with $6,000 to $8,000/month electric bills into a more sustainable, energy-efficient building.

Their framework and ideas were collated into a grant and routed to The Kresge Foundation. Without Kresge’s Green Building Initiative, which supports sustainable renovation and preservation of existing buildings, the Gleaners-Kahn partnership may have lost momentum. Now, it has a chance to flourish.

As we celebrated the grant approval at Gleaners recently, it reminded me that multi-sector community collaboratives deserve more accolades than we ever give them. This project and its players aptly illustrate why.

Nonprofit sector

Each week, Gleaners distributes enough food to provide 392,000 meals, and it accomplishes that with less than four percent administrative costs. It’s the 19th largest food bank in America and one of the most efficiently managed, directing resources to its mission of “nourishing communities by feeding hungry people” – not to excess overhead.

For 10 years, Gleaners looked for ways to preserve the history of its 90,000-square-foot warehouse while making it more efficient. Green measures were sporadically implemented, but change was needed on a large-scale basis. Gleaners sought out Kahn to explore the possibilities.

In the end, sustainable renovations will save the food bank money by reducing utility bills, allowing Gleaners to put its limited resources toward getting food to those who need it. And, the Detroit distribution center will become a role model for other food banks and local nonprofits hoping to do business in a more environmentally friendly way.

For-profit sector

Albert Kahn is a name synonymous with Detroit architecture – from the Fisher Building to the Packard Plant. While Albert Kahn, who opened his Detroit architectural firm in 1895, is long gone, the Kahn company continues his legacy, making us proud to be Detroiters and brag about our cityscape. As Detroit sees a philosophical shift in thinking from “tear down, build new” to adaptive re-use and development of existing properties, the Greening of Gleaners will be part of this smart growth trend.

Seven Kahn professionals – electrical engineers, architectural designers, landscape architects and mechanical engineers – invested their time pro-bono in the Gleaners’ project because they love the city of Detroit, believe in Gleaners’ mission, and are major proponents of sustainable design.

Kahn is serious about being green.  It’s a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and more than 50 staff members are LEED (Leaders in Energy and Environmental Design) accredited. Kahn hopes to help Gleaners attain LEED-EB (Existing Building) accreditation.

Philanthropic sector

Across the country, nonprofits have benefited from Kresge’s Green Building Initiative grants for sustainable construction and renovation. Kresge also has a Detroit grant-making program that has funneled millions of dollars into our city, supporting the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, City Connect, Downtown Detroit Partnership, United Way for Southeastern Michigan, New Detroit and other nonprofits.

Foundations like Kresge are crucial for the growth of nonprofits. With lean operating budgets, not-for-profit organizations typically don’t have leftover resources to invest in their infrastructure. They are by nature investing in their causes, not their buildings.

Yet many times, buildings need repair or expansion. In the case of Gleaners, its Detroit distribution center is the hub of operations mirroring that of any major food wholesaler. With energy costs on the rise, food inflation at an all-time high, and greater numbers of unemployed and working poor people needing food, the food bank must find ways to improve efficiencies so that warehouse shelves can continue to be stocked.

The Kresge Foundation’s green planning grant will allow Gleaners and Kahn to create a framework for building and engineering renovations that will improve building efficiencies, lessen environmental impact, and allow more resources to go toward food acquisition and distribution. In turn, more hungry families will be fed.

Now that is worth hardy applause.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Model D, and she worked with Gleaners on this project.


Gleaners warehouse

Solar panels reflect the Gleaners-Kahn partnership

Gleaners Food Bank employee stacks boxes of food for shipment

Gleaners-Kahn partnership

Gleaners Communtiy Food Bank

Photographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
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